The Moorish Wanderer

War and Politics in Western Sahara: the 1956-1958 Campaign

And I finally got it! the absolute reference on ALM operations in Spanish Western Sahara. Mohamed Bensaid Ait Idder published “Epic pages of the Liberation Army in the Moroccan South” in July 2001 -and I was so far unable to find it in a library or bookstore (yes, it is a borrowed one…) the great thing about the account M. Ait Idder gives of these operations is that it does not stop at the unfortunate ending of Moroccan operations on Spanish and French-held Sahara, but rather describes in documented details the political intrigue surrounding these operations, the delicate political balances it influenced, during times of a race for power in a freshly independent Morocco.

As early as July 1956, High-ranking French officials expressed worries as to the growing activities of the Moroccan Liberation Army South of Draa valley, indeed, French Colonies Minister, Gaston Defferre wrote to his colleague Maurice Bourges-Maunoury on July 18th, 1956:

Gathered intelligence suggests likely imminent attacks against North Mauritania launched by Moroccans from the Liberation Army units stationed in Draa valley, Algerian, Moroccan or Spanish-born moors, more or less supported by warring tribes from the said region.” (Translated from Michel-Ivan Louilt, 2009)

These tumultuous times spared no country involved in the area: France has gone past the fail-safe point in Algeria when the Guy Mollet government called in the reserves; in Morocco, the monarchy was ambivalent in its dealings with the MLA- on the one hand, it was only fair game the King Mohamed V and his son the Crown Prince Hassan were keen to gain control over the MLA, but on the other hand, the regular armed forces were no match, and “assimilation” was not a frank success, as former MLA fighters rather preferred migrating South to liberate territories still under French and Spanish control. To some of the MLA leadership, their activities were a legitimate endeavour to shape the “Great Morocco” project, Allal El Fassi‘s brainchild, but also, as the continuing struggle with Algerian and Mauritanian brethren to achieve Maghreb independence. The Great Morocco map went deep South, all the way down to the Senegal river, while it claimed large chunks as its Eastern borders territories from Algerian and Mali Sahara.

Though Spain did not involve itself directly during World War II, it was still a junior European power even by post-1945 standards; Consequently, its colonial representatives -in 1957, General Rojo was the commanding officer Of Ifni, Seguiet El Hamra and Rio de Oro troops, and later on, General Zamalloa- had tremendous difficulties in reigning in MLA activities on territories theoretically under its control. Instead, Spanish authorities in Western Sahara adopted a more conciliatory attitude, and even allowed MLA units to settle in, with its main Headquarters located in Guelmim, “The Doors to the Desert”.

Spanish soldiers garrisoning outposts near El-Aiun (probably 1957-58) - Picture El Pais

In the MLA leadership’s minds, the main -if not the sole- enemy was the French Army, including those officers heading the Bureaux des Affaires Indigenes. Spain on the other hand, was considered a little less short of an ally, and initially firm orders were issued to MLA fighters not to organize operations against Spanish garrisons in Sidi Ifni and Ait Baamrane (that was also due to the fact that most of Francisco Franco’s inner circle was, up to mid-1956, made up of fiercely anti-French Phalangist old guard). As early as July 1956, violent engagements between MLA and French units happened in Foum Alachir (July 6th 1956) Mergala (August 8th 1956), and M’hamid Ghizlane (December 6th 1956) to name a few. However, the initial Spanish neutrality turned sour, and numerous arrests and crackdowns on resistant networks soon prompted MLA high command into directing its units against a once benevolent colonial occupier. Indeed:

“The Ifni War, sometimes called the Forgotten War (La Guerra Olvidada) in Spain, began in earnest on November 23rd, fifty years ago today. The Moroccan Liberation Army was now no longer tied down in conflicts with the French, and could thus commit a significant portion of its resources and manpower to the capture of Spanish possessions. The Spanish Legion repulsed the Moroccan drive easily, but two Spanish outposts were abandoned in the face of enemy attacks. Many others remained under heavy siege.

In the space of two weeks, the Moroccans and their tribal allies had asserted control over most of Ifni, isolating inland Spanish units from their South-Moroccan capital. Simultaneous attacks had been launched throughout Spanish Sahara, overrunning garrisons and ambushing convoys and patrols. (Source)”

From a purely technical point of view, figures were not on the MLA’s side: its 13 regional commands could field at most 3908 troops (including some 200 in training) equipped with heterogeneous arsenal. After Spain had dispatched two units of its Legion, total Spanish forces in their part of Western Sahara amounted to 9000, not to mention the considerable advantage they hold in terms of air-power and mechanized hardware. Still, in view of the versatile and experimented MLA troops in desert-warfare, as well as the political and material support local Sahrawi tribes provided to these units, initiative and audacity allowed MLA commandos to obtain significant victories: attacks on isolated outposts, or even a full-scale siege on Sidi Ifni and El-Aiun made Spanish presence in these parts of the Sahara very uncertain.

MLA troops near Sidi Ifni, 1957.

The French army, on the other hand, experienced brief exchanges of fire with MLA, first in the TInduf and Colomb-Bechar sector (MLA Central Command considered those to be rightfully Moroccan territories still occupied by the French) and then South of Rio De Oro, when France decided to include Mauritania in its brand new “Union Française” in 1956. Again, MLA leadership, in accordance with El Fassi’s “Great Morocco” design, considered Mauritania to be equally part of our national boundaries. The ease and the amount of destruction inflicted by Benhamou’s troops North of Fort-Trinquet prompted the French into seeking schemes to eliminate once and for all an increasingly annoying MLA activity and a roadblock to its support for Mauritania as a future nation: indeed, many officials from Mauritanian tribes (like Prince Val Uld Umeir) rallied behind MLA and King Mohammed V, as these notabilities represented large and diverse groups of Mauritanian tribes.

November 23rd 1957 saw the first wave of large-scale attacks on Spanish outposts protecting Sidi Fini: Tighna, Thlath Issoubya, Taberkukt, Ithneen Ait Atissimur and Taliwyn. These outposts were outrun after two weeks of fierce battles. To that effect, MLA headquarters in Guelmim committed about 600 troops, among which 140 locals from Ait Baamrane earmarked for the capture of Sidi Ifni itself.

Originally, the attack was supposed to be stealthy and secretive, so as to seize not only all of the outposts ringing Sidi Ifni, but the city itself with minimal or no combat at all. The surprise attack scheme turn out to be a failure partly because of poor, inadequate preparation to the task at hand, and also because of the damaging effects leaked intelligence to the Spaniards had on the attack’s effectiveness. These pieces of intelligence were leaked, it seems, from obscure interests in Rabat and Agadir.

If Sidi Ifni was a semi-failure, other ventures were more successful: El Aiun, Smara, Aoucerd, Cap Bojdor and Bir N’Zaran were seized, or at least captured for hours and days until the Spanish garrisons broke the siege, but only temporarily. In desert warfare, number and equipment do not make a difference. It is worth pointing out that MLA operations were a logistical nightmare: following accounts of the total arsenal at their disposal from 1956 to 1960, weapons from Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Czechoslovakia meant at least 30 different types of ammunition, as weapons varied from pre-WW1 French rifles Chassepots to modern Submachinegun MAT-49, but most MLA troopers were issued with Italian rifles Mannlicher-Carcano (1012) and Spanish Oviedo M93 (837)

The following lists the significant items in MLA weaponry, as of February 1958:

– German MP40 Submachinegun………………………………………30

– German MP38 Submachinegun………………………………………13

– German Kar98 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….25

– German MG42 Heavy Machinegun………………………………….82

– French MAS36 Bolt-action rifle……………………………………….87

– French Lebel Bolt-action rifle………………………………………..224

– Spanish Oviedo M93 Bolt-action rifle………………………………837

– Spanish Argo Heavy Machinegun………………………………….277

– French Hotchkiss Heavy Machinegun…………………………………1

– American Thompson Submachinegun……………………………….15

– American M1A1 Automatic carbine………………………………….16

– American M20 Bazooka AT gun…………………………………………1

– Italian Mannlicher-Carcano Bolt-action rifle……………………1012

– Italian Breda Machinegun………………………………………………10

– British Lee-Enfield SMLE………………………………………………..45

– Czech 33/40 Bolt-action rifle…………………………………………122

all in all, between 30 and 40 different calibres are required for this diverse arsenal and other items like hunting rifles and various side-arms. In addition, The striking feature of MLA arsenal is its lightness. Other than 60mm and 82mm mortars (about 8 of them) the heaviest weapon remains one M20 “Bazooka” recoilless anti-tank gun. Quartermasters at Guelmim and Agadir, as well as representatives sent abroad to buy weapons and ship them to Morocco needed to be extremely careful in their purchases and choices. France and Spain however, relied solely on less than a dozen of calibres when issuing weapons to their troops, and could field artillery (mortars, guns and howitzers) as well as APCs and light tanks, when MLA troopers were only camel-borne. Nonetheless, victories were achieved against Spaniards all the way down to Laguerra thanks to MLA high spirit, skills and dedication to the liberation of Western Sahara.

Dead legionnaires near Sidi Ifni after a MLA attack, 1957 (source: Arxxiduc)

the 9000-strong Spanish forces were not, at first, made of front-line troops: most of those soldiers staffing outposts scattered across the desert belonged to disciplinary companies, ill-equipped, ill-commanded and with no will to die to defend a waterhole, a wells or oasis. They fled their positions when the fight was too fierce. Even the Legionnaires and paratroopers the Spanish high command sent as reinforcement to Sidi Ifni, EL Aiun and Villa Cisneros (Dakhla) garrisons did not deter MLA fighters from storming the enemy with all their might. But the conjugated effect of French air power and the denied access to Spanish territory lead to the dissolution or destruction of MLA presence south of Sidi Ifni.

As mentioned before, French High Command in West Africa and Algeria was very keen on the destruction of any armed resistance, whether from Algeria or Morocco: the Suez failure and the Algerian war convinced the French that something needed to be done about Algerian FLN activities in general as well as MLA raids near Tinduf and Colomb-Bechar in particular. To that effect, the commanding officer, General Bourgund (former commander of French troops in Morocco) needed the precise location of Moroccan “mobs”, their strength, fire power and supporting tribes. Intelligence work and activity was therefore assigned to the POMI –Bureau Politico-Militaire– officers, so as to dissociate MLA fighters from Sahrawi tribes, and denounce them as Soviet-backed agitators. M.I. Louit reports Spanish propaganda was to portray the MLA as:

“an instrument of the USSR […] and that Allal El Fassi and his (sic) Army of Liberation are bad Muslims serving Russia, enemies of God and traitors to the Sultan”

The plan Generals Borgund (France) and Zamalloa (Spain) agreed on early 1958 was to be carried out in three phases:

Preliminary phase: Spanish forces to occupy Draa causeways North of parallel 27º40 and deny access from both directions (i.e. to prevent flights and reinforcements)

Phase 2: Spaniards would move South from El Aiun to meet the French as their troops attack North of Fort Trinquet, so as to block MLA regional HQ (Commander Benbrahim) to that effect, the French commit their Foreign Legion (1er REI) and various CSMs (Compagnie Saharienne Motorisee) as well as the 7th RPC (Paratroopers)

Phase 3: Spanish and French troops from Smara jointly attack, the former North-East and the latter South. Spain carries out further attacks from Villa Cisneros.

By late Feburary 1958, all significant MLA activities South of parallel 27º40 would have been disrupted and its units dispersed or destroyed. (click to get a more detailed view)

France divided its forces in 4 main task forces, with Fort Trinquet and Fort Gouraud as their starting bases:
– Taskforce “Grall”, to attack Tifariti from Ft. Trinquet
– Taskforce “Vidal”, to attack Guelta Zemmour from Ft. Trinquet as well.
– Taskforce “Tinduf” to attack Tifariti from the North and liaise with Groupement Grall.
– Taskforce “Sud” to attack Bir N’Zaran with the Spaniards and clear the way in the Rio De Oro. Taskforce “Sud” was reinforced with smaller units near Zug and Atar to provide support.

Operation Ecouvillon: 8th to 23rd of February

Spanish troops were, on the other hand, reinforced garrisons from coastal cities prepared to attack.

Overall, French and Spanish troops would have committed about 14,000 troops, 130 war-planes (mostly for transport, observation and ground-attacks) and no less than 700 vehicles varying from GMC 6×6 trucks to light tanks M5 “Stuart” and M24 “Chaffee” and light recon vehicles like the M8 “Greyhound” and EBRs. Artillery, ranging from 60mm light mortar to heavy 105mm howitzer was often brought to bomb MLA strongholds away from Guelbs and Canyons they were holding to. As for planes, France relied on medium bomber Glenn-Martin B26 and ground attack plane T6 to disperse and destroy Camel herds suspected to belong to MLA groups or loyal tribes. Similarly, Spanish troops used Nord-Atlas 2501 and Dakota C-47 to carry paratroopers and cut MLA from supply and escape routes.

Against overwhelming odds, MLA fighters did the best they could, but ultimately failed and were bitterly defeated and chased away from Western Sahara, for good. General Bourgund paid a martial tribute to his enemy by writing:

“The enemy doesn’t fight in daylight. However, he is much more aggressive at night; he is endowed with an amazing ability to use the ground to his advantage, his marksmanship and his strength to carry out long and exhausting marches make him a worthy adversary. If surprise favours him, he withdraws at night and the next day, camps some 50 to 70 kilometres away from the ambush, or chooses to join safe haven beyond the border”. (Louit, p.107)

Engin Blindés de Reconnaissance (EBR) unit awaiting orders. French army used many of these to crush MLA activities (Picture ECPAD)

Accounts conflict on the kind of provided intelligence that tipped the balance and gave away MLA units: A first version claims Spanish observers reported minute details to the French, and these corroborate them with accounts from local intelligence (Ait Idder refers to them euphemistically as “French agents”) i.e. from sources inside and in high places in Morocco. French sources however, while disparaging Spanish contribution to Ecouvillon-Teide, seem to favour the “inside theory”, namely that French intelligence in Morocco, with the assistance of Moroccan officials, has managed to compile considerable information on MLA positions and activities. These sources (and Abdellah Ibrahim seem to agree with these accounts) specify these “High ranking officials” as officials close to Mohamed Laghzioui -former head of security and a familiar of crown prince Hassan II- and various officers in the Moroccan Army (FAR) many of whom served with the French Army during WW2 and Indochina campaigns, and kept close ties with French officers still in place after 1956.

It is also fair to say that the Crown Prince was regularly briefed by MLA leadership on ongoing operations, he, at the same time, was on a constant liaison with French officers, as well as American intelligence (in the person of Commodore Leo Blair). It is a known and documented fact (comprehensively reported in Ignace Dalle’s latest book) France regarded the Crown Prince as a trustworthy ally, who in return expressed a desire in weeding out opposition and remaining a strong partner to France.

MLA field commanders meeting with Spanish Colonel to negotiate passage across the border. From left to right: Benhamou, Col. Chass (Spain) Manouzi, Benacher and Bouida.

The MLA, in that respect, was therefore standing against two enemies: France, as the colonial ruler of Algeria and Mauritania, had interest in eliminating any armed resistance, even on Spanish territory. the Crown Prince considered these valiant resistants as potential rivals and a threat to his own ambition and thrust for power.

The Imperial Sultanate of Morocco & The Western Sahara

I have been racking my brain on the subject for quite a while: why is it always the monarchy that has the initiative to announce things, to decide for all of us, and most of all, negotiate on our behalf the crucial issue of the Sahara dispute without the slightest consultation with the people of Morocco, whose money and lives, and resources are generously spent and used with no involvement on their part.

Oh, but I have forgotten: we have this undying covenant between the King and his People, following which His Majesty has an unlimited mandate to do as He pleases, while the loyal subjects await His good pleasure. And in matters like the Sahara dispute, elegantly dubbed ‘matters of territorial integrity’ there is a crypto-fascistic tendency to demand absolute unity. Let us then lecture the regime and his supporters on their arrogant nationalism: How come true patriots have been betrayed when, in 1957-1958 their passionate involvement was on the verge to take back a still occupied territory?

How come that very same monarchy preferred to focus on consolidating its hegemonic grip on independent Morocco, rather than try to realize its independence in its unity? Why is that the same regime quickly abdicated its claim on Mauritania, yet falls in incredible harshness on those who call for a dissident view on the Sahara dispute? And finally, why are we celebrating the Green March, a cynical and nationalistic move engineered by an unpopular and isolated monarch?

To be sure, the monarchy has long since lost any claim for moral leadership on the matter, and subsequently it can no longer be the sole originator of proposals to the Polisario. It is high time The Radical and Liberal side outflanked them on the ‘original’ autonomy proposals.

Above anything else, I am a staunch proponent of the federalist option. As it is, I would go even further when it comes to the Sahara region. As the Late King Hassan II himself once said: ‘aside the Flag and Stamps, everything is negotiable’. Well, let’s negotiate everything then: The proposal calls for the establishment of a joint sovereignty, stylized as the ‘Kingdom of Morocco and the Western Sahara’, or to remain faithful to our heritage, ‘The Imperial Sultanate of Morocco and the Western Sahara’.

Sucessive Defense Walls, 1982-1985

Funny, isn’t it? No, I didn’t smoke pot, nor did I indulge in some heavy drinking. I mean, if we can stand idly by and look on the blatant contradictions between an Islam-based absolutist monarchy, and the more-than-symbolic Western features of the present system, then we might as well just bow and follow the herd of politically correct behaviour: clap when the King announces a shallow reform, frown whenever our ‘sacred unity’ is threatened and shut up and look the other way when the police apparatus beats up or tortures the dissidence.

Let us remain true to our past history and retain its distinguished symbols: we had no king in Morocco. The very concept of Kingdom is disgustingly Western. Why not keep the monarchical system, but instead stylize the Monarch as the “Imperial Majesty, the Sultan Of Morocco”? If we are to retain the monarchical regime (against which I cast no definite hostility, nor do I engage in sheer alacrity) then we might as well take back the old styles. That’s what a genuine Parliamentary Monarchy is about: the Monarch retains the honours, the titles, the Protocol, but relinquishes all powers to the People’s representatives. Why, we might even look back and feel as proud about symbols like the Evening Retreat, or some ceremony performed by Scarlet-clad Royal Guardsmen as we would when referred to the Moroccan monarch as “His (or Her) Imperial Majesty”.

Now, I referred to an alternative autonomy plan that would devolve virtually all powers (save for the regular sovereign ones, i.e. the Armed Forces, the Foreign Representation and Legal Tender Monopoly). The style “Of Morocco and Western Sahara” means that, within the same entity, the Imperial Sultanate, a Moroccan Kingdom and a Sahrawi Republic vow to seal an unbreakable pact to remain together as one country. The Flag and the Stamp, as well as the essential features of sovereignty remain indeed untouched.

This, of course, is but what the proposal aims to achieve. Details would of course entail a great deal of debate, but beforehand, let us take a look at the official proposal for Autonomy; To be fair, the proposals are very advanced, but there remains the roadblock for genuine democracy, the royal fetters that hold back the will of the people; Indeed:

[4]. Through this initiative, the Kingdom of Morocco guarantees to all Sahrawis, inside as well as outside the territory, that they will hold a privileged position and play a leading role in the bodies and institutions of the region, without discrimination or exclusion.
[5]. Thus, the Sahara populations will themselves run their affairs democratically, through legislative, executive and judicial bodies enjoying exclusive powers.  They will have the financial resources needed for the region’s development in all fields, and will take an active part in the nation’s economic, social and cultural life.
[6]. The State will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense (sic), external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King.
[7]. The Moroccan initiative, which is made in an open spirit, aims to set the stage for dialogue and a negotiation process that would lead to a mutually acceptable political solution.
[12]. In keeping with democratic principles and procedures, and acting through legislative, executive and judicial bodies, the populations of the Sahara autonomous Region shall exercise powers, within the Region’s territorial boundaries, mainly over the following:
· Region’s local administration, local police force and jurisdictions;
· in the economic sector: economic development, regional planning, promotion of investment, trade, industry, tourism and agriculture;
· Region’s budget and taxation;
· infrastruture (sic): water, hydraulic facilities, electricity, public works and transportation;
· in the social sector: housing, education, health, employment, sports, social welfare and social security;
· cultural affairs, including promotion of the Saharan Hassani cultural heritage;
· environment.
[14]. The State shall keep exclusive jurisdiction over the following in particular:
· the attributes of sovereignty, especially the flag, the national anthem and the currency;
· the attributes stemming from the constitutional and religious prerogatives of the King, as Commander of the Faithful and Guarantor of freedom of worship and of individual and collective freedoms;
· national security, external defense (sic) and defense (sic) of territorial integrity;
· external relations;
· the Kingdom’s juridical order.


The proposal itself is a good workable platform, and, provided some other prerogatives are expanded, and the symbolic recognition of the autonomous Sahrawi region as a Republic, the proposal might even induce more Polisario people into either joining the Moroccan cause, or even pressure their leadership into accepting the deal.

There is, however, one catch: the proposals, for all their generosity, cannot be credible if the Makhzen still stifles dissent, concentrates power and uses corruption to maintain itself in power. There is no need to point our that, in the camps, Polisario is even worse when it comes to dealing with dissent. And yet, we need to take the moral high grounds by being purer than pure. The Moroccan democracy, to convince the Tindouf people, needs to be of impeachable integrity. A radical institutional overhaul is more than needed, an essential, but not necessarily sufficient condition.

The proposal retains a few aspects of Sovereignty, but does not go beyond general principles; To be sure, currency will be one. And yet, I can foresee at least one problem, the most important of them all: How will the Central Bank define its currency board? We know, from various sources, that the bank defines Dirham counterpart as 60 to 80% Euro. And yet, the one thing Sahara can supply the world with , Phosphate, is Dollar-labelled. Morocco exports goods mainly to the Euro-zone (and thus, conditions its monetary policy with that of the Euro’s) it also exports Phosphate and gets paid in Dollar. This might be construed as a fickle, but believe you me, even within the official proposed scheme, sooner or later (and rather sooner than later, I would say) troubles about currency value and board will inevitably arise. How can we solve this?

Obviously, if joint sovereignty is to be exercised, so will need to be currency valuation; The Central Bank board needs to reflect a balance in its members, a balance that would be reflected on the Dirham’s value. In this particular issue, there can be expected very little dissent: it will be a mutual incentive to keep the Dirham’s value stable and reach consensus whenever possible, and as far as the currency board is concerned, a change in the Bank’s policy regarding transparency can solve the issue; Instead of decreeing it confidential, the Central Bank needs to be open about it, a further deterrent on the board of representatives not to engage in chaotic argument.

The Union Jack designing process can be useful as as a benchmark to design a new Moroccan flag

Same goes for Police (national security), or even Army; Police staff and establishment can be local (just as in the northern regions) but the Army’s issue is trickier. It’s a bit of a quandary, especially when one considers the Army as a unifying symbol. However, the establishment of an autonomous militia, a National Guard of sorts, can provide a good compromise. As for the Federal Armed Forces, a token invitation to defend the common border completes the picture and forestalls any potential problems on the matter.

So there it is: a complete independence in managing local finances (including bond issue backed by Phosphate receipts) and politics, the only infringement on such autonomy is the payment of a Federal solidarity tax, as well as recipient of Federal funds for infrastructure and the like. And because the union needs to feed on common institutions aside from the Monarch’s, the Republic’s representatives seat in the Federal Supreme Court, the Federal Armed Forces Imperial Staff and the Board of the Central Bank.

Furthermore, the Super-Constitutional powers the King enjoys need to be curtailed, either by transferring them to the Federal Prime Minister (a Chancellor of sorts) or by simply abolishing them altogether. The Faithfuls’ Commandership, and its potentially troublesome extra-constitutional interference with earthly matters, needs to be dealt with in the new constitution. Finally, the Judiciary can be expanded to allow for a separate set of rules in the Sahara. However, and because the Supreme Federal Court would be common to both entities, mechanisms can enforce the widest possible set of similarities in laws and legislative standards.

Why would we therefore need to change the King’s styles and get involved in all minute details? Well, mainly because once such proposal is adopted, there will be a great deal of symbolism to be changed: the National Coat of Arms, which will need to be bifurcated from the Royal one. If it wasn’t for the ambiguous Hassan II‘s statement, I would very much like to see a change in our national flag just like with the Union Jack: some sort of combination that would seal further the union between both entities.

And since we are introducing changes in the symbols of the State, we might as well correct a 50-years old anachronism in the Monarch’s style; We have no King. We can retain the monarchical form if we want it, but the title must change and revert back to the old, multi-millennium style of Imperial Highness, the Sultan.

This is an idle dream. A waste of time. If Polisario bosses keep on being fed by Algerian occult lobbies (and the soon-ousted Colonel Ghaddafi), as long as Moroccan lobbies still benefit from the status-quo, in short, as long as this unholy alliance between reactionary forces everywhere keeps on drawing benefits to the participants, then people from both sides of the wall will still suffer and live in mutual hostility. Time to stand up.

A Journey In the Desert Part 4

Posted in Moroccan History & Sociology, Polfiction, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on August 2, 2010


Midday. Scorpions and snakes all over the place. The task force tried desperately not to use water that much, but in places like these, a mere drop of water on the ground gets the invisible wildlife out of their hideouts and look for the precious liquid, with the inevitable struggle for man to keep off the deadly strike. After some tribesmen had joined the growing crowd, it was decided to split the party in six sub-outfits, no more than 20-30 men-strong raiding force each, with occasional meetings for reports and resupply when time and opportunities permit.

Beforehand, the party organised itself in a long column, and then moved slowly towards the next checkpoint, a deep ridge secure enough to operate the dispatch and send out the orders. This was a moment in which the column was at its most vulnerable state, for the men dismounted from their camels and unloaded their supplies. They looked defenceless, as indeed they were, for they had to look after their cooking, or to get some rest to recover from the exhausting raiding parties, or to spend some leisure time for rhetorical argument or tale telling. The wilaya, when peaceful, was more of a group of shepherds looking after their flocks, than an aggressive outfit seeking and destroying.

At the ridge, Ayour gathered his men, and proceeded with the regular reading of the latest dispatches. The raids they carried out near Sidi Ifni were successful on the whole, all of which are prelude to a large-scale offensive scheduled next month against the city itself. In the event of a success, the Spanish might accept it as a fait accompli, and call truce for negotiations. However, Sidi Ifni was just a phase, a preliminary stage to a much wider, much more ambitious offensive. Already the other Wilayas are strangling Spanish strongholds and inflicting great damage their presence on the Western Sahara is more and more questionable, Ayour thought it to be more than lyrical propaganda, he could see it in the field with his column getting luckier by the day in its happy and deadly raids.

The next weeks were quieter. much of the operations were punctual harassment around the wells, long-range reconnaissance and occasional night-raids, with endless afternoons arguing with the tribes in order to gain their loyalty. The raids were randomly successful, for the MLA had to rely on its loot, as the supplies from Morocco had to cross farther to get to destination. Apart from the herds the allied tribes fed on, there was not much to look for. Within months, the wilaya disrupted much of the outposts, cut much of communication lines and capture amounts of supplies so important that the Spanish, on the verge of loosing grip on the immediate outskirts of Sidi Ifni as well as the city itself, decided to move some front-line troops in. The Foreign Legion was therefore the provide garrison for Sidi Ifni, Villa Cisarenos and Cap Juby, as well as some strategic wells along the coast. The inland desert, however, was left undefended before the MLA.

La Ferte kept receiving the Spanish reports. He was puzzled: the mobs attack in small numbers, in Commando-style. A couple of mortar shells, lightning-bolt attacks and constant overrunning of small outposts. When the attack was unsuccessful, no wounded and no corpses were left on the battlefield. Truly the most formidable enemy ever. La Ferte knew the MLA had the support of the Reguibat and Oulad Dlim, as well as other tribes, the desert was turning more and more pro-Moroccan. As the key man in field intelligence, he was, despite being of junior rank, at the centre of a huge conspiracy.

He knew the Monarchy was at odds with the MLA and some elements of the Istiqlal party. His contacts in Rabat and Agadir mentioned an ambiguous behaviour from the Crown Prince and his aides towards the MLA. Officially, Morocco does not recognize the MLA as such, but in practise, weapons and supplies are flowing from Agadir southwards. The truth however, was that the Moroccan position was more of a conflictual nature than a carefully laid plan. In his intelligence work, his assessment of the Monarchy’s stand was, without doubt, as an ally to France.

La Ferte, in his sketches for intelligence warfare strategy, put forward a couple of proposals. He called for labelling the MLA mob as communists and atheists, because in his opinion that would give a good scope of the wider claim that the Soviet Union wants to destroy Islam in North Africa, that Egypt is their puppet there and that their projects were a danger to Islam in the Arab world. Then, he managed to gather some sympathetic locals and successfully managed to make the idea of creating a country West of the AOF inevitable. Mauritania, he thought, would be an invaluable ally for France’s stand there. The Union Française won’t last much longer, and the soon-to-become independent African countries will need French support against any communist infiltration. Furthermore, La Ferte was very fond of the saying “Divide & Rule”.  Mauritania as a country would effectively weaken the Moroccan nationalists and left-wingers and give France a “second front” from which it could concentrate on its present plight, the troubles in Algeria as well.

The French officer had other plans for the short term. As the executive commander of the Ad Hoc unit, the 4th CMSM (Compagnie Mixte Saharienne Motorisee). This outfit consists mainly of veteran Legionnaires and Meharistes from other units, would provide the reconnaissance support for the upcoming offensive scheduled for early spring 1958. Time is of the essence in order to insure the crushing of the impudent mobs.

Picture from a website dedicated to the Spanish Airforce

A Journey In the Desert Part 3

a month later…

The quiet dawn was torn up when the first rounds were fired on the Spanish stronghold. The Spaniards, mostly conscripts or servicemen were astonished at first, then horrified when they discovered that a direct hit blown up their radio station. Farewell their hopes to get reinforcements or even ammo and food. They were no professional soldiers, and those stationed in the desert loath everyday their bad luck. Standing by them were some Tropas Nomadas. These are locals the Spaniards rely on as their guides, their escort and occasionally their workforce to police some troublesome tribe. The most experienced officers knew how to use the ancestral rivalry between the tribes, but couldn’t be sure of their entire submission. The Sahrawis took the bribe, accepted the honours, nonetheless they had nothing but contempt -save for some extraordinary occurrences- for the Nassranis. The Tropas felt even more let down, and some of them have already defected with their rifles and their priceless experience to serve the MLA by the time Ayour’s task force reached their target. the MLA’s spirit was quite high, as they had assurance many other auxiliaries wanted to take up arms with them and drive the Spaniards out. All the night long, Ayour and his new men started a stealth reconnaissance of the surroundings for the scheduled assault at dawn.

When they got back to their camp, He found the men already feasting on a camel they slaughtered for the occasion. The battle will turn them into one outfit, he hoped. Only in the battle does the comradeship become true, he experienced it with the Rif veterans, for they came from all over Morocco and ended up fighting together. “Tomorrow is another day, let us now get some rest”.

First mortar rounds. Explosions. bullets zigzagging all over the place. He felt breathless. An understatement of his state right then. He couldn’t feel his legs though he was surprised he had such strength to run so fast. The assault on the tiny Spanish outpost east of Sidi Ifni begun, first thing in the morning. After a brief mortar shelling, he led his party across 600 meters or so to get to the outpost. To his right, he saw two men fall, deadly shot. He had a ridiculous thought about it, because it looked as though they fell stupidly, like they couldn’t get up on their legs, and suddenly, the crumbled like a pile of cards, or an amateur building with shaky foundations. He found it even strange to have such thoughts at a time where the mind is like muted out, and were the basic thinking is devoted to the one aim that matters: to get back to the other end of the ground. A couple of seconds later, he saw  three other guys fall, shot dead too. He guessed there was a machine gun nest somewhere on his right, so he nervously got a grenade out of his haversack, took the pin out but maintained its safety till he saw three tracing bullets flaring out of a dark smoky cloud a hundred meters far or so. He hated using grenades because he felt it was not a proper weapon. He was fond of his rifle, he didn’t mind using mortar when the occasion arises, but he hated using grenades. Not ‘man enough’ was his main reason. Besides, it does not kill as sure as a bullet or a bayonet blow does, and the result can be very ugly. He released the safety, threw his grenade as far as his arm could and dove to the ground, waiting for the explosion. A small earthquake followed, silencing the nest. And just as the warring noise came all of the sudden, a deadly silence took over, stressing the dramatic effect of smoke and dust. When it all settled down, he was relieved to see that the assault succeded, the outpost was overrun.

It was brief; no more than 15 minutes long. The survivors fled to the city while the MLA started checking the outpost. Nothing much of a loot, Ayour noted. Some rifles to equip the Reguibats, some grenades for training maybe. The prize was the machine gun he spotted earlier on. Luckily, the piece of equipment was not badly damaged by the shrapnels, but it was too heavy to be carried out. He decided to hand it to the Reguibat boss as a war trophy, a gesture that enhanced even more the MLA reputation.

After the loot, came the mourning. The dead were buried, the wounded were however a handicap. Right from the beginning, Ayour knew strategic supplies, especially medicine, were scarce among the MLA. They had to capture some from the enemy, or make use of every resource they can get, which is virtually impossible in the desert. The party was in a chance because the local nursery had a small stockpile of morphine, which was used to alleviate the wounded suffering. The decision was made to get them back to the departure point and recover. The campaign was just starting, and the battle group could not be slowed unnecessarily. In any case, corpses were pulled back from the battlefield and buried hurriedly. Stealth and secrecy were the watchwords.

Meanwhile, a large French Air force Languedoc just landed on the small Las Palmas airport. La Ferté, with a top-ranking civil servant from the Ministère d’outre-Mer et des Colonies and the commander of  AOF (Afrique Occidentale Française), were to meet their opposite numbers in Spain to discuss the now serious situation in Spanish territory. Down the airport were the Commader of Spanish West Africa, his chief of staff, and the Airforce commander. No civilians, just the military. La Ferté thought they were old-fashioned. They were all wearing immaculate uniforms, shining knee-high boots, horse-riding breeches and collar-buttoned blouses decorated with impressive arrays of medals and awards. The contrast was stricking between the French three-stars general, dressed casually in his Saharienne, his baggy trousers closer to the Seroual than any Spanish regulation would allow for, and his Khaki béret, his Spanish counterpart on the other hand, was dressed in a uniform that did not change much since the Great War. No wonder they keep losing to the MLA mob was La Ferte sarcastic comment. The meeting seemed unreal, though La Ferté noted the Spanish willigness to turn the blind eye if the French were to chase the MLA on their side of the Sahara. In return, the French agreed to share their intelligence with the Spanish. They didn’t have to blow up much secrecy: It was a fact French military advisors in Morocco were quite influential, and many high-ranking Moroccan officials were on their payroll. There was even a rumour the Palace would be quite satisfied if the MLA was destroyed. The web of a nasty conspiracy were woven against the MLA.

MLA Flag, circa 1955 (I still have some doubts about the colours, the reference I checked on was black & white)

A Journey In The Desert Part 2


The small party moved back from the hill to the pre-arranged meeting point at dusk. All of them felt powerless before the ineffable strength the desert was in its void. The men, all of robust constitution and of a military might they knew too well to be deadly, were helpless when the sandstorm strikes, when the rain pours from the heavy clouds, when the sand bits clog their weapons. In a place were Mankind had better leave modern technology for domestic rusticity for the sake of their own survival, it was always amusing to hear the men curse and swear whenever their weapons or hardware was ineffective because of the sand.

The MLA had indeed bigger fishes, or if we may, lizards, to fry. The difficult and hostile ground, combined with a random weather, were of infinite hardships compared with the despicable lack of knowledge of the surroundings. To the soldiers and commanders alike, the desert lying before their eyes was equally hostile and endless. When the MLA commander met the political representative, L’Fqih, he was quite blunt in his report: “Chouf a si Mohamed, we are in for an adventure here. I don’t mean to sound too cautious; You know, I am cautious. It is foolish to presume that my 2000 or so guys could cross a desert as large as the Rio De Oro, move in and engage the Spaniards. Mayemkench.” He was nervously waving old-looking yellow sheets. “If you want Ait Idder, Youssoufi and me to do the job, you are going to give us the assurance of local support. Talk to the tribes, tell them who’s side they are on. We need their spare camels, guides for our columns, their knowledge of the ground for food, shelter and water and intelligence on the enemy’s positions” As he was going on his requirement, Benhamou was growing febrile, waving his hands and rolling his eyes for a dramatized effect, he thought would impress L’Fqih and emphasis his case. “Maykoun Ghir Li Bgha L’Colonel” L’Fquih replied with a half-smile. “You know you can rely on me for these matters. I’ll put in a word to the national broadcast to send in some sympathetic messages, you know what I mean, get the propaganda going, urging the tribes to help our guys, etc. I am also pleased to tell you Agadir’s governor is entertaining this week a delegation of Chioukh that you should meet and press on joining our cause. I am sure they would weight on and provide you with what you need.”

Back at Saint-Louis, Capitaine La Ferté was studying meticulously the maps hanging on the tall white wall of the AOF garrisons’ chief headquarters. He looked concerned while contemplating the neat arrangement of arrows, charts and comments. His job as intelligence officer was to report and record all the Fellouzes activities, as well as some Moroccan mobs coming from the North. He knows from his colleagues at Rabat and Meknes that many well-equipped irregulars are moving Southward. He also knows the Spaniards are too weak to offer any credible resistance, and sooner or later, the MLA and the FLN would join hands, and then, he thought, “nous serons vraiment dans la merde“. The Méharistes and the Légionnaires were too far stretched across the line Tindouf/Port-Etienne  to police the borders effectively. La Ferté is a young veteran,and an unfortunate mishap with training jump left him unfit to keep up with his alma mater regiment. However, during his recovery, he read and learnt so much of North Africa that he soon became invaluable to the intelligence staff. He managed to change his boss’ mind about the threat the MLA could represent, and urged him successfully to watch carefully their moves for the time being. There was no need for over-aggressiveness, La Ferté knew too well the Suez expedition damaged deeply France’s stand in the Arab world. “c’est deja assez chaud comme cela” smiling to his pun.

Ayour thought the tent would at least bring a bit of relief from the uncompronising sun. He was so wrong for the heat was unbearable at first, plus the blunt transition from blinding daylight to the dark hole he felt like sucked into. There, three austere faces looked indifferently at him, then carried on drinking their tea, the flavour of which, both sweet and acrid filled the tent. “Better drinking their tea than this stinking mud I’ve been sipping for the whole week ” he thought. He aknowledged their presence by a neutral “salamou 3alaykoum“, to which their replied in an equally detached tone. Because his column was moving hard accross the desert, he didn’t bring a Saharan tent with him. He was rather proud of the US-surplus he got when they start moving, a drap-green, WWII-old tent that must have been used by some G.I in Italy or some god-forsaken place in Europe. Now it is the property of an MLA soldier, miles and miles in a desert no one can really control but the native tribes, and there he was, trying to convince the three odd-looking people to join his venture and muster some support for his outfit. The analogy went even further; His cloak was an old khaki, the same one he retained from the wild years in the Rif. He looked like a tramp before the three majestuous blue/white-and-gold gandouras. Ayour tried it once, but looked like a fool. They, on the other hand, were at ease, as if they were sinking gracously and perfectly conmfortable in it. That caused them to much less presperation, a thing that always amazed the sweat-sunk, even hyperhidrosis Ayour. “Would you please offer food and shelter for me and my companions ? We have been travelling from a long distance, and we are quite foreigner in this place. Allah y barek fikoum“.